In my line of work (communication), sometimes you get so caught up in the planning and the doing, you skip over the “did it work?” part. Sometimes, that part is built in—if you are communicating on behalf of a political candidate, for instance, the effectiveness of your tactics is mostly determined by whether your candidate got elected or not. But other times in communications, you just move on to the next thing without ever knowing whether the previous thing really worked or not.
Sometimes, though, you want to know whether something is working before the result—like, during the final countdown of executing a strategy. For example: I very much want to know whether the messaging and communications strategy of the Biden campaign are getting through to voters right now, especially given how much insane crap and disinformation the Trump side is putting out there. I don’t know how or whether to trust polls anymore, after 2016, but I want to believe—no, I want to know—that somehow, voters have heard at least a portion of the truthful, heartfelt messages, and that there are more voters who subscribe to facts and decency than there are who subscribe to ignorance and fear.
If you spend a lifetime, like I have, on trying to figure out how to get the right messages and information to the right audiences, you can see how it is both a good thing and a bad thing to understand how the sausage is made. Like: I totally appreciated the Democratic National Convention for the master communications and production effort it surely involved. They picked exactly the right people to deliver the right messages—Biden’s speech, while good, turned out to be the cherry on the cake. He didn’t have to be spectacular, because the rest of the convention turned out so well.
But the flip side of understanding how the sausage is made is that sometimes, bad people are really good at making shit sausage, and serving it up to people who want to eat the shit sausage. By some measures, Trump is a master communicator: he knows exactly what his core supporters want to hear and he says it. It is why they all think he’s honest, when he’s one of the biggest lying sacks of crap that’s ever held public office. (And that’s a really stiff competition!) He’s actually been pretty honest with us about what a lying sack of crap he really is.
Anyway, back to whether you know whether your messages are getting through: in the past few days, I’ve seen a couple of examples of messaging getting through, and as a result, I have hope. I have a lot of reasons to be cynical about messaging getting through, especially when it comes to complicated topics that voters really need to understand—I still have nightmares about the so-called “death panels” during the debates leading up to the Affordable Care Act.
But then again, I have seen examples of public education messaging that actually, you know, educates the public. Back in the day (early 2000s) when we were trying to learn more about why some racial and ethnic groups received lower-quality healthcare when compared to white patients, we realized we couldn’t learn more unless people consented to being identified by their race or ethnicity. And that that would trigger all sorts of totally legit concerns and fears from people who have been racially targeted for discrimination and outright abuse.
So some of the organizations we were working with back then, they said that they would work with local advocacy groups representing minority groups (we called them “minorities” back then, in part because they were minorities, back then) to educate people about racial and ethnic data collection for the purposes of improving their health and healthcare. And I admit, I was skeptical. I was skeptical that these advocacy organizations could overcome language and cultural barriers and explain to these folks why self-identifying your racial and ethnic background could be a good thing for them. But they did it. People said okay, yes.
So onto more recent examples of messaging getting through: first, my mother. She is 82. She and my father emigrated to the United States from Korea in the 1960s; she escaped from North Korea as a young girl, and her family lived through the Japanese occupation and two wars. She was a practicing physician for over 30 years and has always spoken excellent English; in the past decades, she has lost some of her acuity and intellect due to the natural processes of aging, the stress of caring for my father, who has dementia, and the bewildering digitization of our world—she is completely unable to do anything online.
My parents were lifelong Republicans but my mother hates Trump—he reminds her of North Korean dictators, and also, of any bloated, narcissistic man she’s encountered throughout her lifetime. My parents usually spend six months at their Pennsylvania home and six months at their home in southern California, and this year, my mother has been waiting to make the transition to Ca because she wants to make sure to cast her vote for Biden in Pa. Where, as you know, her vote really counts. So while she is prepared to go to the polling place, she also requested a mail-in ballot, to which Pa finally expanded access.
I’ve been tracking the rampant voter suppression going on in multiple states, and I was aware of the so-called “naked ballot” issue in Pennsylvania. So during one of my regular phone calls with my mother, I raised the topic with her. Realize that in previous calls, my mother wasn’t sure of whether or how she was going to vote at all, despite being strongly pro-Biden. She was acting flustered about the logistics of it—which happens to her a lot more these days. (I get it.) But when I raised the naked ballot question with her, she immediately responded and said she knew all about it, and correctly relayed the details of what she had to do to avoid her ballot being invalidated.
What the heck? It was a delightful shock! I asked her, “how did you hear about it?” And she said, “Oh, the local news has been covering it really thoroughly, and your dad and I also got voter education materials about it.”
Did you hear that, people? The messaging got through! The public—well, at least one member of the public, my mother—got educated! If someone like my mother understand the details of the naked ballot so clearly, can’t I be hopeful that others did, too, and that maybe this one obstacle to voting won’t be as formidable as I thought?
Second example: my mother-in-law. A little younger than my mother, white, raised in an outer suburb of Buffalo, New York. Very in tune with the news and current events, especially local. She lives in Maryland now and we were talking about early voting the other day and I mentioned the issue of people being prepared for a highly fluctuating electoral map on Election Day, because of the expansion of mail-in ballots and the different wonky ways that states count their ballots. And she said, calmly, that she was fully aware of that prospect—and went on to cite examples from different states about how the votes are counted. I was impressed. She knew a lot more detail than I did.
I mean: who are these voter education outreach people who are doing their jobs so well? (Even though I know “you” are many, many people, when I picture who “you” are as an individual representative, I see Stacey Abrams.) I SALUTE you. I wish I knew you back when I was working on healthcare reform. You are educating your target audiences on complex and bureaucratic, but necessary, steps they need to take! Hallelujah!
Oh go ahead—jeer at me for being corny. Make fun of me for getting all excited about a ridiculously small sample size—particularly two women who are educated and well-informed. Warn me not to count my chickens before they are hatched. I don’t care! Hope is the fuel I need, to both do the work I love and fight for the country I love.